In the United States [TJL1]today, life is shaped by popular culture. Television presents a picture of what society [TJL2] should look like. The radio tells society what it should think and listen too.[TJL3] The Internet influences the opinions people make and how they learn about current events. Popular culture forms how society acts, what it wears, how is eats, and so much more. The extent of the power of popular culture is incredible, entering into every area of life. It therefore becomes important to study the effects that popular culture can have on American society, what those effects are, and how to address and stop those effects.
Romance novels[TJL4] are one of the best-selling genres in the publishing world. This genre is a multi-million dollar a year industry, and it is mainly geared towards women. With such a large following, one must wonder what message romance novels are sending out to their readers. What are these novels saying about romance, about love? What are these romances saying about sex? Sex is one of the first features one thinks of when one thinks about romance novels.
Romance novels typically include multiple sex scenes between the hero and heroine. It would be understandable then, to assume that women’s perceptions of sex might be influenced by what they read in these romance novels. Such influence over sex perceptions is fine, especially when the scenes portray sex as a loving act between two people. But, what happens when that is not how sex is portrayed? What happens when the sex in romance novels is shown as forced? What happens when rape appears in romance novels?
For my honors thesis, I propose to study the question above. That is, I will [TJL5]study how the appearance of rape in romance novels affects the perceptions of rape in America. How does the fact that rape in romance novels ends in love change how one perceives rape in real society? Does it make one think [TJL6]more leniently about rape? Or, conversely, would it make one more aware of rape in society and the contradictions and “gray areas” that surround rape? Such understanding could help in understanding how rape cases should be prosecuted, how rape should be legislated, and much more.
To explore this topic, one needs to have a working knowledge of two different research areas. First[TJL7], one must have an idea of how the publishing industry works.[TJL8]. What do publishers look for and expect in the romance novels they print? How did this industry develop? Also, one should have a general knowledge on rape. Such a general knowledge would include a basic definition of what constitutes rape, how rape is perceived, and the effects of rape on the individual and society. It [TJL9]is only through knowing the background of these topics that one will be able to address the proposal question .[TJL10]
Romance Novels and the Publishing World: Romance novels have a long history. Some even hypothesize that the origins of the romance genre can be traced all the way back to Pamela, a novel by Samuel Richardson which was the first British novel and first English novel printed in the United States (Modleski, 15). Over the decades, the romance novel has changed and evolved. Along with this change in the novels themselves brought changes in the publishing industry. However, all these changes made the romance novel industry the successful enterprise it is today.
There are many names associated with early, British romance novels. After Richardson came the novels of Radcliffe, Bronte, and Austen, whose works gained immense popularity. Because of the response of the public to these novels, a new romance genre, the Gothic novel, sprang up. These novels were brought to the United States, where they were well received. Most novels in America tended to be English imports (Modleski, 17), and fell into sub-categories within the genre.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the sentimental novel gained popularity in America. This novel typically revolved around the tale of a innocent, virginal girl who had to fight off the advances of a rake (an overly ardent male protagonist). At the same time, the domestic novel, or tale centered around the workings of woman’s role within the home, gained popularity. Often times, these two categories would overlap. The authors of these stories were usually primarily concerned with morality, and used their novels to propagate society’s notions of proper female behavior. Females were shown not only how to behave, but also the dire consequences associated with breaking this moral code.
These novels on morality did have to compete with the popularity of the Gothic novel. This form of romance took place in exotic settings, and often dealt with women’s fears. Modleski, in her book Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women, exposits the idea that women of this period were afraid of their confinement in home under the dominion of their husbands. To fight against these feelings, the Gothic novels was an outlet in which the female could compare her fears to the more pronounced fears and life of the heroine. In this way, the Gothic romance helped ease fears and promote domesticity. However, during the nineteenth century, the domestic novel edged out the Gothic novel (Modleski, 22).
Though most of the romance literature was coming in from England, circumstances within the United States allowed for the distribution of these novels. In 1839, the first cheap books were being sold through the mail as newspapers. Books were being made available to more Americans, and the popularity of these books took many by surprise. The industry quickly sprang up to fill the needs of the newly-reading public. However, when the mail system stopped shipping these books as newspapers in 1843, the industry had to change its methods (Radway, 24). A new world of publishing was opening up in America.
In its infancy, the American publishing industry had been dominated by intellectual works. Authors of such works paid for the publishing of these novels themselves, shouldering all risks. Though this continued to be the practice into the twentieth century, publishers were trying new methods of mass producing books that could be sold in different venues. These books, often times shorter then regular novels and produced more cheaply, were known as mass markets. The mass-market industry started in 1937 by American Mercury Books, and was able to duplicate the success of the early newspaper-novels. In 1939, Pocket Books was founded, and was the first publishing company to engage in category publications. Most of the books produced were detective fiction and mystery novels (Radway, 27).
The detective and mystery novels that were published during this period had an effect on the romances that were being written. Those novels tended to vilify women, causing women to feel threatened and paranoid once again. These fears brought the comeback of the Gothic novel in 1938 with the publishing of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. This book began the “Gothic Revival” (Modleski, 21), as once again the Gothic novel was used to both reveal and ease the fears of women. However, the publishing of this novel had a profound effect on the publishing world. The popularity and numerous reprinting of Rebecca caused publishing houses to reassess the marketability of the Gothic romance genre. By the 1950’s, when the popularity of detective novels and mysteries was dying out, many publishers turned their attentions to the romance genre.